A new book by associate professor of government Andrew Mertha, “Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid to the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979” (Cornell University Press), documents Maoist China’s secretive relationship with the ruthless Pol Pot regime running Democratic Kampuchea, as Cambodia was known at the time.
While the war-ravaged, internationally isolated nation depended on the emerging regional superpower for military aid and technology, Mertha says, China was largely unable to influence Cambodian politics or policy. “They were in Cambodia to try and help their revolutionary brethren and to bring glory to China in its mission to help Cambodia develop under Chinese tutelage,” the author discovered.
Previous studies of the China-Khmer Rouge connection overstated the degree of Maoist influence, Mertha believes, whereas Cambodian communism was far more influenced by the Soviet and Vietnamese models. The Sino-Khmer Rouge relationship was overwhelmingly pragmatic rather than ideologically based.
Beginning in 2010, the Cornell author interviewed former technical aides from China, as well as former Khmer Rouge officials still living in Cambodia. He also drew from classified Chinese and Cambodian documents. He notes the Chinese “refrained from scolding the Cambodians and would get their hands dirty to show them how to get something accomplished, even sharing their food and cigarettes with them when Democratic Kampuchea cadres weren’t looking.”
A book reviewer for an English-language newspaper in the Cambodian capital wrote: “China’s experience with its first-ever client state suggests that the effectiveness of Chinese foreign aid, and the influence that comes with it, is only as good as the institutions that manage the relationship. By focusing on the links between China and Democratic Kampuchea, Mertha peers into the ‘black box’ of Chinese foreign aid to illustrate how domestic institutional fragmentation limits Beijing’s ability to influence the countries that accept its assistance.”